A first grader holds hands with his mother as he walks to be tested for the coronavirus
A first grader holds hands with his mother as he walks to be tested for the coronavirus before attending classes at Northridge Middle School.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
K-12 Education

California to expand COVID testing, give kits to students as part of Omicron response

Faced with the spreading Omicron variant, state officials unveiled plans to provide rapid coronavirus tests for K-12 public schools and expand hours at testing sites.

Faced with the rapidly spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus, state officials unveiled plans Wednesday to provide rapid coronavirus tests for students in California’s K-12 public schools and expand hours at busy screening sites.

Those efforts, along with a previously announced requirement that health care workers must receive a vaccine booster, are the latest steps aimed at repelling the highly mutated variant, which has spread rapidly nationwide since the first case was confirmed in San Francisco three weeks ago.

The new booster requirement applies to workers in health care and high-risk congregate settings, such as nursing homes.

All those employees will need to be boosted by Feb. 1. Those who have not received their additional dose will be tested twice a week until the deadline, Gov. Gavin Newsom said during a briefing Wednesday.

Officials said the mandate will protect both workers and the vulnerable populations they serve, as well as help keep available health care staffing at the level needed to navigate a possible patient surge.

“We recognize now that just being vaccinated, fully vaccinated, is not enough with this new variant. And we believe it’s important to extend this requirement to getting that third dose, to getting boosted,” Newsom said.

California also will furnish every public elementary, middle and high school student with one or two rapid tests as they come back from winter break.

“We are ordering 6 million tests — no charge — and we’re going to be sending those out to our partners up and down the state to allow for priority access for at least one to two tests before our kids come back into school,” Newsom said.

Hours will also be expanded at state-operated testing sites that have reached capacity.

The availability of testing has become a particularly pressing issue since the emergence of Omicron.

Since the variant can spread so easily, health officials say robust testing is a key strategy to protect residents.

“Widespread testing would allow individuals who are infected to then know that they should stay home and avoid getting others sick, reducing that transmission from close contacts,” Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Tuesday.

However, at-home rapid coronavirus tests have flown off the shelves of late — leaving some residents empty-handed and prompting government officials to try to fill the gap.

The Biden administration, for instance, unveiled plans this week to buy 500 million at-home rapid tests that will be available to Americans starting next month free of charge.

State officials said the steps announced this week will help prepare California for what they’ve long worried could be a challenging winter.

Even before Omicron stormed onto the scene, experts said the one-two punch of the busy end-of-year social calendar and colder weather that would push gatherings and festivities into riskier indoor settings threatened to spur increases in coronavirus transmission.

Omicron has only heightened those fears. The variant has spread rapidly since arriving in the U.S. and is now the dominant version of the coronavirus, federal health officials said this week.

That Omicron has shown the ability to elbow out Delta — the long-dominant variant both in California and nationwide — is a testament to its infectivity.

Recent scientific findings indicate that “this variant is about three times as likely to cause an infection as the Delta variant,” Ferrer said this week.

However, an open question is whether Omicron may cause less severe illness than was seen with Delta.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, for instance, projects the Omicron surge will continue rising swiftly through December and into January, potentially peaking later next month or in early February. Despite the increase in cases, predictions indicate there will be fewer daily deaths than during last winter’s devastating peak.

Times staff writer Taryn Luna contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.